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Weren’t Jesus’ Followers Armed and Eager to Fight in the Garden of Gethsemane?

Did Jesus support a violent revolt against Rome?  The one argument that probably gets used more than any other in support of that view is that when Jesus gets arrested in the Gospels, his followers pull out their swords to fight.  What are they doing with swords?  Why are they fighting?  Since this is in all the Gospels (independently attested) and since it’s not a story that later Christians would be likely to make up (since they would want to portray Jesus to their Roman audiences as peace-loving, not as a rabble-rouser) — wouldn’t that show that it’s something that really happened?  And if so, then clearly Jesus was interested in arming his followers and fighting the authorities.

That’s how the argument goes, and it’s a very good one.  But after some long reflection, I don’t find it convincing.  Here is how I discussed the matter in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (the only book title that I deeply regret!  No one knows what it’s about but it’s unusually important: it’s about how memory works and how distorted memories affected the stories about Jesus that were being passed around by word of mouth in the years before they were written down by the Gospel writers):


In all four Gospels, at least one of Jesus’ followers is armed when he is arrested.  In the Synoptics, this unnamed follower draws his sword and strikes the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear (see Mark 14:47).  In John’s Gospel we learn that the sword-bearing disciple was Peter (John 18: 10).  Jesus puts a halt to his follower’s violent inclination, however, and humbly submits to his arrest.  In Luke’s version he does so only after healing the ear (Luke 22:51).

From the eighteenth century until the present day (starting with Hermann Samuel Reimarus, the first scholar to write a critical study of the historical Jesus in the modern period), there have been scholars, and non-scholars, who have thought that this incident in the garden is both altogether plausible and indicative of the character of Jesus’ message and mission.  In this opinion, the incident must be historical for a rather simple reason.  What later Christian would make up such a story?  When Christians were telling and retelling their accounts of Jesus’ life in the years after his death, of course they would want him to appear entirely palatable to their audiences.   Nothing would make Jesus more palatable in Roman eyes than the view that he was a peace-loving promoter of non-violence, not a violent insurrectionist against Rome.  If Jesus allowed his followers to be armed, however, that would suggest he was in favor of them carrying out acts of violence.  If later Christians would not make up the idea that Jesus’ promoted violence, then no one could make up the idea that his followers were armed.  Following this logic, the story of the sword in the garden is not an invented tradition but a historical fact.  Jesus’ followers, therefore, were armed.  Moreover, if they were armed, so this reasoning goes, then Jesus must have anticipated and even promoted an armed rebellion.

There’s a good deal of sense to this view and it is easy to see why it is attractive.  Still, at the end of the day I don’t find it convincing.  This is for two reasons…

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  1. Avatar
    roybart  June 17, 2020

    What is the Greek word always translated as “sword.”? There were many different types of sword in the Greco-Roman world, each with it’s own distinct name.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      The word here is μάχαιραν (MACHAIRAN)

      • Avatar
        roybart  June 18, 2020

        Thank you. Wikipedia’s describes a machaira as most often a small sword or large knife used for cutting. Only one side is sharp. This seems quite consistent with what one of the disciples might have carried for defense at night in an unfamiliar and apparently hostile city.

        • Avatar
          Smithjacusmc  June 19, 2020

          That’s a great observation, I was going to make that point in regards to being caught in very scary confrontation in the night and the first thing you may do is defend youself, then flee, as you are the ouly one who is armed and the whole gang just beat feet. I believe as Jesus had previously told his disciples to get a sword, they had two, that’s enough, not enough for a rebellion, but enough to fend off robbers etc..

  2. Avatar
    Ahmad_abbas  June 17, 2020

    Didn’t the disciples desert Jesus and flee in Mark? Weren’t they too drunk from the wine they drank in the last supper that they kept sleeping over and over despite Jesus telling them not to sleep for three times? Maybe they were not able to fight. Also the naked man fleeing is a strange diversion which I could never understand.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      No. Drunk???

      • Avatar
        Ahmad_abbas  June 18, 2020

        11 people not able to stay awake for 3 consecutive times and they were drinking wine earlier. It sounds like they had much to drink. Anyway, they did forsake Jesus according to Mark. Maybe that is why

  3. Avatar
    Camtimothy  June 17, 2020

    Bart, you have written many times that the gospel writers were not historians, were writing years if not decades later, and wrote with theology in mind, not history. To my eyes, the entire episode smacks of theology-based fiction, a device meant to kill a bunch of birds with one rock. The multiple goals may have been to get Jesus to Calvary, castigate the Jews, create a villain/betrayer, and establish jesus as a healer/peacemaker. The simple reality that Roman soldiers under a sword attack at night in an isolated garden would have responded with overwhelming and deadly force. Jesus and his followers would have been killed then and there. And the idea of jesus stopping the action and reattaching an ear is theology, not history. As likely that jesus was arrested after a traffic stop with pot found in his chariot!

  4. Lev
    Lev  June 17, 2020

    “it is very hard to see why the disciples were not arrested.”

    I can see two reasons:

    1. Those sent to arrest Jesus, ‘soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police’ (Jn18:12) sent from the ‘chief priests, the scribes, and the elders’ (Mk14:43) were under orders to arrest Jesus, rather than his entourage also. Judas had arranged a sign to pinpoint Jesus “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” (Mk14:44) and in John Jesus asks “‘For whom are you looking?’ They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’” (Jn18:5). They weren’t looking to arrest the whole group, just one man.

    2. Jesus gave himself up. Even when the swords started swinging it was probably thought better to leave with the target they had under arrest, rather than risk further injury or death (especially during a Passover festival) by engaging in a deadly struggle to arrest or kill his followers. After all, they had who they had come for and his followers had just demonstrated they were prepared to use deadly force to resist – why engage in an unnecessary fight?

  5. Avatar
    jbickle  June 17, 2020

    But what do we say about Luke 22:36?
    “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one”
    Surely this is a direct order from Jesus to be armed?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      Seems to be, yes. But it’s only in Luke and is generally not seen as a saying actually going back to Jesus (I’m speakingn here of the historical Jesus, not of the various ways he is portrayed in teh Gospels).

  6. Avatar
    Matt2239  June 17, 2020

    The sword fight at the time of arrest shows some important things. Not only did the disciples come heavy, but one of them lost it (as humans are known to do) and lashed out violently at the Romans. Jesus fixed that, and showed that he was serious about non-violence, and that he himself was not human. This is very important, because soon enough, people will be asking why he cannot save himself from crucifixion. Did it really happen? Yes.

  7. Avatar
    jhague  June 17, 2020

    “If I’m right, then the sword fight in the garden is a distorted memory.”

    I see the progression that you make with this being a distorted memory but it still seems like a made up story that stuck. Is there much difference?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      Not really, so long as it’s a story that was made up in part on something that actually happened.

  8. Avatar
    dankoh  June 17, 2020

    I have never understood how it was possible for a disciple (identified as Peter only by John) to attack a servant of the arresting authorities with a sword in the middle of the arrest and not himself be arrested, if not actually cut down in response. The moment when an arrest takes place is always tense, as any police officer will testify.

    But this conundrum also means I have a problem with your speculation that the story was inserted to illustrate how “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword” since nothing happens to the sword-wielder. It seems more likely that it was intended to show that armed resistance was neither necessary nor useful, that Jesus’s message would not be spread by the sword. (Even the passage in Luke of Jesus telling his followers to arm themselves is meant to make a connection to Isaiah’s “transgressors.”)

    Certainly the idea of Christian pacifism extends in the third century, with Origen explaining why Christians should not join the army, but should instead pray for the emperor’s success in battle.

  9. Avatar
    UncleAbee  June 17, 2020

    In John 18:10 the verse gives the servant’s name (Malchus). I am aware that John was written close to the end of the 1st century (60 years or so after Christ’s death). Could this possibly give some creedance that the event actually happened? Maybe someone could have found descendants of Malchus and asked some questions. Also, maybe the disciples weren’t arrested in the attack because they attacked a non roman soldier? Could that be an answer?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      Usually this kind of thing is called “verisimilitude,” where an author makes up a specific detail to provide believability to an account. Happens all the time — still today!

  10. Avatar
    tom.hennell  June 17, 2020

    But do the Gospel accounts specify ‘swords’?

    ‘Machaira’ in the Septuagint corresponds to Hebrew ‘machelet’ – a sacrificial knife, or carving knife. As in the story of Abraham and Isaac. ‘Short sword’ is a secondary meaning. If it is Passover, then any male Jew in Jerusalem will very likely be carrying a machaira; as they will be needing it in the Temple for the Passover sacrifice.

    So Jesus disciples were not armed. On this see Paula Fredriksen.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      I believe it means both, actually.

      • Avatar
        tom.hennell  June 19, 2020

        No Bart, Peter’s implement must either have been a sword or a sacrificial knife, it cannot have been both.

        In Mark, the ‘machaira’ is found only in this passage; once for Peter’s implement, once for the weaponry of the arresting party in the combined formula ‘swords and clubs’. But Jesus’s question at Mark 14:48 ‘why come to me with weapons?’ implies that Peter’s implement was not a weapon.

        Otherwise; ‘machaira’ is absent from ‘Q’ material – but found in the particular traditions of Matthew, Luke and John; always with the clear meaning ‘sword’. And of course, a lot in Revelation.

        In Paul ‘machaira’ is found twice, both in Romans. At Romans 13:4 it refers metaphorically to the ‘power of the sword’ rather than to any specific implement. At Romans 8:35 it is commonly rendered as ‘sword’; but given Romans 8:36, ‘slaughterer’s knife’ must be equally possible.

        Your proposal. that Mark introduces Peter with a ‘machaira’ to provide context to a teaching of Jesus that is only found in Matthew’s special tradition, “the one who lives by the sword dies by the sword” , Looks most unsafe to me.

        Arresting everyone carrying a ‘machaira’ at Passover, would have imprisoned over 100,000.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 21, 2020

          That’s right. It was one or the other. I’m saying the *word* could mean either one. In Greek the word was used for a long dagger, a sacrificial dagger, or a curved sword to differentiate it from a straight sword. The word itself does not indicate which it was. And I’m not saying that Romans were rounding up everyone with a machaira.

  11. Avatar
    hairj42  June 17, 2020

    This may be a silly question but weren’t swords expensive? Would it be strange for a poor fisherman like Peter to be able to afford one?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      I suppose one could get them second hand. (seriously)

    • Avatar
      Venzen007  June 21, 2020

      That was my very question, @hairj42: what would a poor fisherman, especially in this time, be doing with anything that could properly be called a sword? Swords were the equipment of soldiers and fighting men. Could Peter or whomever have been a former of either of those, still retaining the weapon?

  12. Avatar
    fishician  June 17, 2020

    In Mark 14:43, Mark being our earliest Gospel, it says a mob came to the garden: “Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a crowd with swords and clubs, who were from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.” And then the sword incident in v. 47: “But one of those who stood by drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear.” Jesus then appears to rebuke the crowd, not his disciples: ““Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me, as you would against a robber?” “One of those who stood by” does not sound like it was referring to a disciple, but one of the crowd, who got carried away and struck the slave in the confusion. Hence Jesus rebukes the crowd, not his disciples. This seems more plausible to me, and it eventually morphed into a disciple, in fact Peter himself, being the swordsman, and the wounded also given a name (Malchus, in John).

  13. Avatar
    EndTimeEd  June 17, 2020

    I can’t remember the name of the book where I read it, but I remember reading that the Romans were OK with people having ordinary knives and light weapons they could use to to fend off would be robbers, but that having military grade weapons like swords without authorization could get them the death penalty. I this is correct, wouldn’t that put the story in a different light?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      We actually don’t have any information like that from antiquity. It’s probably just someone’s guess.

  14. Avatar
    gusloureiro  June 17, 2020

    Dear Bart,
    Considering that we have at least a thousand years of the Bible in circulation, is there anything left to be discovered about it? I mean, there are some controversies among scholar about specific issues, but are they going to be ever solved? A major archeological discovery that changes the understanding of the Bible completely seems very unlikely, don´t you think?
    Thanks a lot for the help!
    Best regards

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      On the contrary, things get discovered all the time that help us understand more and more. It’s a thriving field with new insights all the time.

  15. Avatar
    Leovigild  June 17, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You said earlier that you think that Judas reported to the Roman authorities that Jesus was planning to become king of the Jews, based on the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ preaching. But as you yourself point out, the Gospels also have Jesus predicting that his twelve closest followers will become kings of the tribes of Israel at the same time.

    If Jesus’ prophecy that he will be King of the Jews was sufficient for the Romans to arrest him, why, by the same token, wouldn’t his plans to make his followers kings of (some of the) Jews also justify arresting them as well?

    Given that Mark doesn’t have any of the disciples present at the Crucifixion and subsequent events, isn’t it likely that Peter et al. were _not_ present when Jesus was arrested, and instead went into hiding? Which would be a different reason for considering the events of Gethsemane to be a later embellishment.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      They may have been justified to do so, but they chose not to, as sometimes happened. They may not have known much about the followers, just that Jesus was making this claim. It appears they were with him when arrested, but fled soon after — presumably getting outta town and heading back to GAlilee, where the Jerusalem officials had no jurisdiction.

  16. Avatar
    Boltonian  June 17, 2020

    I imagine swords were expensive items, so where would these poor peasants have got their money? Also, as in most societies right up to modern times, only the privileged or those with a specific licence were permitted to carry arms (the USA is a modern exception). Just on these criteria the events as described in the Gospels seem unlikely. Do you know how common, in that era and place, it was for ordinary folk to carry weapons?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      No, the Romans world did not require licenses, and weapons could probably be obtained cheaply. Yes, many people would have been armed, in one way or another.

  17. Avatar
    Clair  June 17, 2020

    Regardless, it is a good story, that explores violence, law and more. But, only in Marc we have verses 14:51-52, do you have view about them?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      My main view is that the common viwe that the author is talking about himself is flat-out wrong. Maybe it means that those who flee from Jesus instead of standing beside him are left naked to the world.

  18. Avatar
    mannix  June 17, 2020

    To demonstrate my intellectual investment in the Gethsemane arrest, I’m still hung up on the famous Mk 14:51-2 featuring the “young man” stripped of his sole piece of clothing at the end. After such a dramatic event, we get a seemingly anticlimactic/irrelevant incident. Why?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      My main view of the verses is that the common view that the author is talking about himself is flat-out wrong. Maybe it means that those who flee from Jesus instead of standing beside him are left naked to the world.

  19. Avatar
    Dabar  June 17, 2020

    Struggeling to see this as “distorted memory”. All four accounts from Gospels are so very much similar. Let’s imagine this situation: a lot of people (“οχλος”), servants , soldiers following Judas. It must have been some kind of a “buzzing” experience. All four accounts pointing out the “ear” of the slave (“δουλον”) – someone who is not that important, I would imagine, in the crowd, who is coming to get a man claiming to be the Son of God. And anyway all Jesus’s companions ran away after all of this…
    Main goal was to bring Jesus.
    And we have an account of Jesus saying: “I came, not to send peace, but a sword.” Mt 10,34 (I know that interpretation of this words may be different, taking into account the circumstances, but still his disciples heard the word: sword.)
    On the other hand: was it common for Jewish people to carry a sword when travelling etc? Was it legal while under jurisdiction of Roman Empire?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      Three of them are similar because Matthew and Luke got their story from Mark. John is different in lots of ways. That suggests that the story ahd been handed down in the oral tradition, familiar to many people but told in other ways. The Roman empire did not have national laws governing weaponry; it’s hard to know how much people were armed as a rule.

  20. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  June 17, 2020

    Cutting off an ear with a sword always seemed to me to be a difficult feat anyway. Try to imagine doing that with something as sharp as a samurai sword, and, yes, it could be done but the precision and control required would be awesome. You have to imagine any plausible sword of the time to be more like a roman gladius, and those were stubby and probably not really sharp enough to make a clean slice. Even when I was a little kid and heard that story I tried to visualize it, and it just seemed next to impossible. But I would like to see a Christian apologist try to demonstrate that it can be done, on another Christian apologist. I’d pay money to see that. What was the probability, anyway, in those times, of that sort of sword carrying? Seems like the Romans would looks askance at armed subjects.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      Yeah, I’ve always wondered how one does that too. Romans certainly would have objected to anyone *using* swords!

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